Crime, Fear and Trust

Most casual readers of the general press know three things: crime is up, public safety is down, and trust is declining.

The problem is: the first two are flat out wrong, and together they cast doubt on the third.

Crime and Fear

(The following data are compiled from the Atlantic, March 2015, Be Not Afraid).

Fear: In the US, Gallup annually asks if crime is up or down from the previous year. Every year, and usually by large amounts (73% vs 24% last year) the public says crime has risen.

Fact: Violent crime has declined by 70% since the early 1990s. The homicide rate has been cut in half, and three years ago hit the lowest level since 1963. Rape and sexual assault rates declined 60% from 1995 to 2010.

Fear: 58% of the public fears another US terrorist attack, down not much from one month after 9-11, when the number was 71%. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff declared the world “more dangerous than it has ever been,” and that was two years ago and before ISIS.

Fact: Despite the horrific stories of ISIS, you’re four times more likely to drown in your bathtub than from a terrorist attack. Armed conflicts in the world are down 40% since the end of the Cold War.

And so on.

The point? Fear of crime and of danger are not necessarily linked to actual rates of crime and danger. In fact, myth is often negatively correlated with reality.

I’m fond of the saying, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

But as ee cummings said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes paranoia is just irrational.

Trust and Statistics

What’s this got to do with trust? Good question.

First of all, ask yourself what the headlines say: Is trust in business generally up? Or is it down?  You all know the ‘right’ answer.

But trust has a definitional problem that crime doesn’t. Determining whether crime is really up or down is simple: look at the crime rate.

When it comes to trust, however there are three conceivable measures:

  1. Trust, the verb – are people more, or less, inclined to offer their trust in principle?
  2. Trust, the adjective – is business more or less trustworthy?
  3. Trust, the noun – is the resultant state of people’s trust in business up, or down?
Verb x   adjective  noun
Propensity to trust of trustor x trustworthiness of trustee = Level of trust achieved

All too often, the business press is guilty of mass confusion. When you see precise statistics from sources like the high visibility Edelman Trust Barometer, saying ’Trust in XYZ industry is up (or down)’  – ask yourself just what that oh-so-precise percentage is referring to. Does it mean:

  • People are X% less inclined to trust a given industry or company?
  • Industries/companies have gotten X% less trustworthy?
  • The state of consumer-to-industry trust has undergone an X% decline?

Presumably it means the last – the state of trust has declined. But here we have a problem – because we can’t tell which driving factor drove the decline.

  • Do we have a problem of paranoid consumers?
  • Or do we have a problem of endemic industry untrustworthiness?

If consumer fear-driven low propensity to trust is the root issue, then the financial services industry has got a public relations problem on its hands, and they should hire Edelman.

But if industry misbehavior is the root issue, then we’ve got a social, regulatory and political problem – throwing PR solutions at it won’t help, and may hurt.

Parsing the Data

There do exist some data. Every year the General Social Survey asks some trust questions, which are clearly of the “verb” type, assessing people’s general propensity to trust strangers in principle.

Here there is a clear trend: across the world, and particularly in the US, there is a secular decline in the level of propensity to trust.  So we have part of the answer: paranoia is increasing.

The question is: is the paranoia justified? Has trustworthiness declined, or has it increased?

I only know of two data sources that speak to that, and only partially at that. One is Trust Across America’s FACTS database, which gathers a number of data-points and aggregates them into measures of corporate trustworthiness. And while the TAA data does an excellent job of facilitating cross-company comparisons over time, its five years of data isn’t yet enough to speak clearly to aggregate trends.

The other source is our own Trust Quotient, or TQ, which overtly measures trustworthiness at the personal, not corporate, level.  We have noticed, both anecdotally and statistically, a gradual rise in the average level of TQ over the past 7 years. However, the data is self-reported, and is not a controlled valid sample of a broader population; it may just be grade inflation, or it may be comparing apples and oranges.

The conclusion? Except for the propensity to trust, which is clearly down on average, most trust data is either very specific and qualified, or definitionally vague.

I confess to some irritation on this topic. Trust is a serious issue, with many people seriously studying it, and doing so carefully. There are many more, however, who feel qualified to spout generalities and truisms about trust with no definitional clarity. Simply put, there is a lot of non-sense out there.

Next time you read something about trust being up or down, be critical. Ask whether the ‘trust’ being measured is a verb, an adjective, or a noun.  Ask whether pessimism is justified by data, or whether paranoia is overwhelming reality. Ditto for trust on the upside: if a company tells you their trust levels are up, push for definitions.

Don’t just nod your head: be a discerning student of trust data.




Is Building Trust More Like Baking a Cake, or Like Being a Better Person?

If you want teach someone to bake a cake, you’d give them a recipe. First, do this; then, do this. The result is ‘cake.’

You can be pretty confident of the effectiveness of your advice. Further, if someone presents you with a cake, you can confidently infer the steps they had followed to bake it.

If you want to teach someone to become a better person, it gets a little trickier. Defining ‘better’ turns out to be the least of it.  Are there Twelve Steps to Becoming Better? Why not five? Or does it take thirty? Worse yet:

  • If someone does the steps – how likely is it they’ll become “better?”
  • If someone is better – does it mean they followed the steps to get there?

And which approach characterizes trust?

Causality and Predictability

Strictly speaking, causality can never be proven. But casually, we infer it all the time. Tell any fool who doubts the power of causality to stick his finger in a flame and see what happens.

So if someone says to you, “Explain to me how you baked that great cake,” you can give an explanation that makes a great deal of causal sense.  “The key is  to whip egg whites just right,” you might say, and “make sure you bake it just a little longer than the recipe says.”

We understand immediately that whipping egg whites causes a change in consistency, and that time-in-oven affects moistness and firmness. On top of that: if they go home and whip the egg whites and bake it just a little longer, they are very likely to get the same results you did.

But if someone says to you, “Explain to me how you became a great person,” you might say, “A lot of suffering went into that.”  Or, “I read the most amazing book.” That leaves a lot unsaid.

First, a lot of people suffer without becoming great people. Suffering causes lots of things, becoming a great person being only one of many possibilities. Most importantly, does it mean that if you suffer, you will become a great person?

Ditto for reading a book. Maybe that’s how you became great, but how does book-reading in particular cause greatness?  And if I read that book, will I become great?

Becoming a great person is probably more like learning to love, or to write a song. You have to learn to be open, to listen to others, to struggle to understand what others mean when they say something. You probably have to get in touch with your feelings, feel the feelings of others, sometimes give up control.

For a million reasons, the dysfunction of our age is applying cake-baking solutions to great-people problems, rather than the reverse.

Snake Oil, Management Gurus and Trust

A lot of advice, wisdom and selling in this world exemplifies that dysfunction.

In the training business, we have baked in (pun intended) this sort of approach, by insisting that trainers supply language like “participants will master the skills and behaviors of X so they can produce results Y at a level of Q.”

But it’s hardly unique to training. Think of most self-help books, and an extraordinary number of blogposts and magazine-rack tabloids.

Here’s a generic formula you can use, with a few examples:

[Number] [Adjective] Ways to [Verb]  [Adjective]  [Object] to [Gerund phrase]

  • Six Key Ways to Attract High Net Worth Clients to Improve your Planning Practice
  • Ten Innovative Ways to Write Powerful Copy to Maximize Your Blog Traffic
  • Five Proven Ways to Attract a Super-Sexy Date to Amp Up Your Love Life
  • Twelve Most Powerful Ways to Deliver Hi-impact Coaching to Expand Your Consulting Practice

How many books do you know that propose to identify the X most critical determinants of a successful company? Can you say Good to Great? In Search of Excellence?

Cake-Bake Great People?  Or Be Great Cake Bakers?

There’s value in both approaches. But we need to be balanced about it, and as I said above, the greater danger of our time lies in mechanist explanations.

Take trust, for example. Here are two contrasting approaches.

The cake-baking example is  a new report from Edelman, on their annual trust barometer, called What Drives Trust. It uses regression analysis on survey data to suggest 16 Trust Drivers, including “offers high quality products” and “treats employees well.”

Fair enough. Of course, few companies set out to produce low quality products or treat employees badly. But there’s value in forcing them to compare their data with others. And the list of 16 as a whole tells a story, as opposed to other lists that might have been created.

More critically, though, is how the information will be used? Will it be deployed in project management fashion, assigning someone the job of treating employees better so that trust can be improved? Or is the value more heuristic in nature, making for richer discussions? In complex cases like trust, the latter is more clear.

The second approach is characterized by this Management Innovation Exchange video by CEO John Mackey, Can You Measure Trust?  He suggests Whole Foods’ primary metric is an output – morale – rather than inputs or causes.  He argues not against measurements, but in favor of feeling, intuition, instinct. We need more of this, he suggests, rather than more cake-baking metrics.  The best tool, he suggests, is to “be able to sense and feel.”

When it comes to trust, the value of metrics lie in getting us to think, rather than to task and manage. Even then, thinking alone is not nearly enough: trust also requires a bit of heart.

So do a lot of things. Not all life is like baking a cake.

Can You Trust the Data on Trust?

It’s late January. That means the business media are full of two events: the Davos World Economic Forum, and the Edelman Trust Barometer (announced at Davos, of course).

This is the 11th year of the Trust Barometer, which means it’s a measurement that increasingly permits study over time. It’s a rich source of information and idea generation, and Edelman deserves a lot of credit for establishing and continuing the series. And yet—the survey is still frustratingly unclear about the very definition of the thing it purports to measure—trust.

What is Trust?

Let’s break this down. Let’s get simple. You can trust—and you can be trusted. They are not the same thing.

  1. You can measure people’s general inclination to trust; in fact, it is regularly measured in the General Social Survey, an NSF-funded effort that has been in place for over forty years. It shows a long, slow, steady decline in the US population’s tendency to trust others.
  2. You can measure the objective trustworthiness of institutions by identifying behaviors and marking them with metrics. This is the approach taken by Trust Across America to identify trustworthy companies.
  3. Finally, you can take opinion polls about the level of ‘trust’ that people have in business, media, banking, etc. This is Edelman’s approach; they do phone surveys of over 5,000 people asking them how much they trust an entity or institution.

The problem with approach 3 is that it combines approaches 1 and 2, to the point where you can’t identify the cause of a shift in answers.

A concrete example: Edelman’s comments on a chart titled Trust Index: Brazil Rises, US Declines:

“[From 2008 to 2011] we took an average of trust in NGOs, business, media and government… The US moved from fourth from the top to third from the bottom [ahead only of the UK and Russia]…that’s a major change. The other major change is Brazil went from eighth place to first place.”

What in the world does this mean?

  • Does it mean that, in the last three years, Brazilian government, business and media have become more trustworthy, while US government, business and media have become less trustworthy?
  • Or does it mean that Brazilians as a people have become more trusting in the last three years, while Americans have become less trusting?
  • Or does it mean a blend of those two forces? If so, what’s the mix? Are trustworthiness and trusting-ness moving in the same direction, or in different directions? Whatever does this all mean?

Here’s a hint. It may not mean any of those things. Look at the 3-year growth in GDP in the United States—pretty flat, with that horrible negative number set around 2008-09. Now look at the 3-year growth in GDP in Brazil—7 of 11 quarters show growth above 4%, and 6 of them growth above 6%.

What would the US survey numbers look like if US GDP had matched Brazil’s? I suggest—about the same as they did in Brazil.

The thing is, short-term surveys about specific objects of trust are more like popularity contests—they are heavily driven by economics and current events. When the economy turns up, so will trust in business, and in government. This kind of ‘trust’ changes quickly.

The ‘trust’ that Edelman is measuring has a lot in common with consumer sentiment surveys, brand recognition surveys, or even popularity contests. Nothing wrong there. Nobody has a patent on any one definition of trust. But what are the implications of using this particular definition?

Just what is it we’re talking about here?

Trust, Reputation and Communication

Here’s Reuters’ opening paragraph in a story on the Trust Barometer titled Trust in Business Tumbled in 2010: Survey:

Americans’ trust in institutions of all kinds dropped last year as persistently high unemployment sapped people’s confidence in business and government, a newly released study found.

So—is trust the same as confidence? Or is confidence a driver of trust?

The Financial Times offers yet another synonym, in its headline, “US Public Loses Faith in Business.” Is trust the same as faith? And, by the way, faith in what? Faith to do what?

The story gets more muddled. Reuters again:

People in the United States…said they trusted the auto sector, following the successful initial public offering of General Motors Co…That change, [Edelman] said, reflected a belief among the public that automakers were starting to tackle their problems.

What is it that people are trusting the auto sector to do? I may trust GM to get financing, but not to sell me a better car. Which question am I answering when I say, “I trust GM?” (To put it technically: the meaning of ‘trust’ is highly contextual–trust to do what? Without context, the meaning is unclear).

The Financial Times reports, “Mr. Edelman said he was “shocked” by the global rebound in trust in carmakers.” I’m less shocked, because it’s clear that only the people who answered the question knew what they meant by their answers.

Edelman itself says “trust is critical as a driver of corporate reputation.” Which says something about Edelman’s view of what is really important about trust—not trust itself, but its effect on corporate reputation.

As Edelman EVP Ben Boyd points out, these days one voice won’t do—the CEO must be coupled with a technical person for product crises, for example. He also says, it’s critically important that communications be multi-channel and frequent because, in the US, 85% of respondents “needed to hear data about a company 3-5 times before they would believe it.

And now we’re getting to the heart of the matter. Edelman is a PR firm, and their perfectly natural tendency is to view the world through the lenses of communications and reputation. And if the survey says people won’t believe you until they hear it 3-5 times, then by golly you’d better tell them 3-5 times! Problem is: the overload of spam, tv ads, junk faxes, robo-calls spin interviews arguably caused the need for multiple information hits. This sounds like concluding that the solution to message overload is more message overload. Ask the pharmaceutical industry how that’s worked out.

From that perspective, the Trust Barometer is a longitudinal study of consumer sentiment, intended to improve corporate messaging and communications so as to ultimately improve corporate reputations.

There’s nothing wrong with that. But I don’t think it particularly helps to make companies more trustworthy; nor do I think it helps people become more trusting. Which, I guess, means it doesn’t all add up to a net increase in trust.

I myself would prefer to see corporations more focused on doing the right thing, instead of focusing on trying to convince their consumers, through multiple iterations and multiple spokespersons, that they are doing the right thing.

The Trust Barometer cannot tell us the difference between trustworthy behavior and people’s moods. It is built to help those whose job it is to craft the images that people hold about companies, and not to help those who would take dead center aim at those companies’ behaviors.

That’s fine. There’s a valid role for communications, and it looks like this:

  1. If my company is doing a better job than the public thinks I am doing, then I need PR. No one is better off if people think worse of me than I deserve.
  2. But if I know my company is doing a worse job than the public thinks I am doing–then I had better hire consultants, shake up management, and tell the PR firm to shove off, until such time as I’ve fixed some basic issues in my business.

We have more than enough Type 2 situations to afford the luxury of over-indulging in Type 1.

Trust the Trust Barometer—but be careful about what you trust it to do.

Trust, Violence and Congresswoman Giffords

The attempted assassination of Congresswoman Giffords in Tucson this weekend is related to trust.

I’m not talking here about interpersonal trustworthiness. Nor am I talking about polls and surveys about which institutions or professions are up or down in the public’s sentiments.

I am talking about what the academics call “generalized trust.” (See interview with Dr. Eric Uslaner for more on this). In a nutshell, generalized trust means our inclination to trust strangers, or to believe that people by and large have good intentions toward us.

That kind of trust is suffering a long, slow, secular decline (again, see Uslaner). And the Tucson tragedy throws it into relief.

Politics, Psychology and Violence

Some people debate whether the killer was politically motivated or merely psychotic, or some combination of both. From a trust viewpoint, I think it’s irrelevant.

Similarly, it’s also not always useful to debate cause and effect: did the shooter react to socio-political dialogues, or are those dialogues caused by events like Tucson? Does the media merely report polarizing events, or does its reporting contribute to the polarization? The answer is yes.

We have seen in the US in recent years an increase in the willingness to trust “someone like me.” This is not a good thing; it mainly means a decline in the willingness to trust other sources—media, advertising, business, government. We are a society that seeks trust in self-defined groups (think inbound marketing), while seeking protection from ‘strangers.’

High trust people feel in control of their lives and expect well of others. Low trust people feel that others control their lives and that “they” have bad intentions.

Add it up and what have you got? A society increasingly polarized with declining social trust, increasing micro-tribal trust (and its cousin, demonization of other tribes), and declining civility. My tummy tells me the odds of a Jared Loughner are increased, not decreased, with this cultural soup.

Drivers of Social Trust Issues

I find myself linking to Professor Uslaner several times in this post. “Congress,” he says, “is much like the rest of us—the incivility in Congress reflects the declining trust among the public.” Congresspersons clearly have a responsibility to role model more trustworthy behavior. The business literature is replete with examples of followers emulating leaders’ behaviors; Congress should read it.

The media are another key constituency. The old media is under economic attack from other media—blogs, tweets, YouTube—which offer far greater immediacy. We all lose when mainstream media start playing SEO games with headlines.

Business leadership is a critical part of the puzzle. Steeped in a 40-year ideology of competition, and seasoned with neo-Randian economics, business has come to believe far too much that all business is about doing battle with regulators and customers, confusing ‘ethical’ with ‘legal.’ The belief that everyone’s out to get you is not conducive to social trust.

What Pogo said is also true: we have met the enemy and he is us. I saw a blogpost today that was critical of Francis Fukuyama’s book Trust. Except that the blogger hadn’t read the book. He was suspicious of it because he didn’t like the title of another Fukuyama book—which, again, amazingly, the blogger had not read.

We accept far too readily emotional outbursts as substitutes for dialogue. The online comment columns on daily newspaper stories are full of graffiti—a (usually venomous) opinion with a name attached.

How to Restore Social Trust

Uslaner is very clear in his prescription. What destroys trust is corruption, economic inequality, suspicion, and lack of education. You may not like it, but the data show greater economic inequality and lower levels of education lead to lower social trust.

Leaders have to step up to the challenge of acting like leaders. The US Congress and politicians in general have done a conspicuously poor job of this. That Congresswoman Giffords appears to have been an exception to that rule simply draws the irony more sharply.

The media have to figure out another economic model besides emulating the tabloids and creating blogysteria. The Shirley Sherrod case was a lesson for anyone listening. Thus far, it seems like it’s been relegated to the archives.

Business has simply got to drop the selfish ideology it has embraced. Institutions like the Chamber of Commerce need to stop fighting government and begin working with it. Business schools have got to stop teaching ethics in one classroom and contradicting it in strategy classes down the hall.

And the rest of us: we all need, in our little daily behaviors, to adopt better manners. Civility. Respect. Empathy. Listening to the other person.

The link between an uncivil society and a society terrorized by psychotics is hard to prove, but not hard to feel. Aristotle suggested that actions arose from character and from thoughts. Combative people talking hard-talk are suborning bad behavior from those around them.

There are no quick fixes to trust. Seeing this as mainly an issue of better police protection would be a profound mistake.

Realms of Trust and Manifestations of Trust

Most would agree that trust is a hot topic just now.  That’s about the only thing agreed upon about trust, however.  We can’t even decide what it means.

I wrote a post last week called Trust, Trusting and Trustworthiness.  I suggested that much writing about trust confuses these three manifestations.

Think of that post as Managing Trust Part I — Trust Manifestations. Think of this as Managing Trust Part II — Trust Realms.

There are three trust realms in all: interpersonal trust, organizational/institutional trust, and social trust.

The realms of trust are well known to academic trust researchers, not so much to business people. They do make simple common sense, however.

1. Interpersonal trust

Interpersonal trust deals with one-on-one dynamics. Most of my work has focused in this area. It’s the stuff of relationships, selling, advisory businesses, and personal risk-taking.

2. Organizational and institutional trust

This form of trust covers a wide range of issues: the organizational environment conditioning interpersonal trust relationships, the trust of individuals in their organizations and institutions, and the nature of trust relationships between organizations themselves.

Surveys that measure “trust in government” can shift dramatically and quickly, with the election of an Obama, or the humbling of an SEC, for example. In these respects—speed and personalization—organizational trust resembles personal trust. But it also deals with organizational cultures and values—undeniably group phenomena.

3. Social trust

Social trust deals with the generalized beliefs individuals hold about “other people."  Think under what conditions you’re likely to lock your car doors. Unlike the other two realms, this trust doesn’t deal with people as individuals; also, it tends to change only glacially, perhaps across generations.

If we array the realms of trust against the manifestations of trust, as shown below, we can begin to have a structured conversation about trust.

Trust Realms and Trust Manifestations



Being trusted

State of Trust

 Until then, we are going to have vague, or circular, or meaningless discussions about trust.

When Steven H.R. Covey talks about how trust affects speed and cost, he is largely talking about the manifestion dimension—the presence or absence of a state of trust. But is he talking about the state of personal trust? Or organizational? Or cultural/social?

Gatehouse, a UK communications consultancy, says “business is facing a massive and global crisis of trust right now.”  But what are they talking about?  Which manifestation?  Which realm?  Or are we descending into an inevitable and inescapable downward spiral of rampant anarchy? 

Do they mean that individuals are less trusting of business? Or that more businesses are untrustworthy? Or that the state of economic uncertainty has rendered the state of trust lower?

Paul Seaman’s review of the Edelman Trust Surveys (Would you trust a trust survey?) does a nice job of taking apart the apparent meaning of trust survey data.  A small example: trust in banks is down, trust in government is up: does that mean we want the government to take over banks?

These are not word games.  Intelligent policy formulation depends on being able to clearly define problems. For example:

• When is structural regulation preferable to greater enforcement?
• For what trust issues is transparency an appropriate remedy?
• Do we have any institutions that teach the personal manifestation of trusting?
• If you change personal and organizational trustworthiness, do you have to worry about social trust?

We’re entering a period where trust has gone viral; it’s got buzz. We’re about to see more survey data, telling us with greater and greater precision whether doctors are gaining on nurses in trust ratings, who has the most trusted brand name, and whether trust in Romanian economists went up or down in October. 

Watch out for conflicts of interest: who’s paying for a ranking of trustworthy companies?   What problem is being solved?  What issues are being addressed?

Get ready for many tales, full of sound and fury, signifying—well, just what? That is the question.